There is momentum building behind the adoption of pre-print servers in the life sciences. Ron Vale, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at UCSF and Lasker Award winner, has just added a further powerful impulse to this movement in the form, appropriately, of a pre-print posted to the bioRxiv just a few days ago.
If you are a researcher and haven’t yet thought seriously about pre-prints, please read Vale’s article. It is thoughtful and accessible (and there is a funny section in which he imagines the response of modern-day reviewers to Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the structure of DNA). His reasoning is built on the concern that there has been a perceptible increase over the last thirty years in the amount of experimental data – and therefore work – required for PhD students to get their first major publication. Vale argues that this is a result of the increased competition within the life sciences, which is focused on restricted access to ‘top journals’ and is in turn due to the powerful hold that journal impact factors now have over people’s careers. Regulars readers will know that the problems with impact factors are a familiar topic on this blog (and may even be aware that their mis-use was one of the issues highlighted in The Metric Tide, the report of the HEFCE review of the use of metrics in research assessment that was published last week).
Michael Eisen has written a sympathetic critique of Vale’s paper. He takes some issue with the particulars of the arguments about increased data requirements but nevertheless espouses strong support for the drive – which he has long pursued himself – for more rapid forms of publication.
I won’t bother to rehearse Eisen’s critique since I think it is the bigger picture that warrants most attention. This bigger picture – the harmful effect of the chase after impact factors on the vitality and efficiency of scientific community – emerged as a central theme at the Royal Society meeting convened earlier this year to discuss the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication. At that gathering I detected a palpable sense among attendees that the wider adoption of pre-print servers would be an effective and feasible way to improve the dissemination of research results; (for more background, see proposal 3 towards the bottom of my digest of the meeting).
Vale’s article does an excellent job of articulating the support for pre-prints that bloomed at the Royal Society meeting. I urge you again to read it. But for the tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”) crowd, here’s the key section on the arguments for pre-prints (with my emphases in boldface)*:
1) Submission to a pre-print repository would allow a paper to be seen and evaluated by colleagues and search/grant committees immediately after its completion. This could enable trainees to apply for postdoctoral positions, grants, or jobs earlier than waiting for the final journal publication. A recent study of several journals found an average delay of ~7 months from acceptance to publication (33), but this is average depended upon the journal and the review/revision process can take longer on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, this time does not take rejections into account and the potential need to “shop” for a journal that will publish the work.
2) A primary objective of a pre-print repository is to transmit scientific results more rapidly to the scientific community, which should appeal to funding agencies whose main objective is to catalyze new discoveries overall. Furthermore, authors receive faster and broader feedback on their work than occurs through peer review, which can help advance their own studies.
3) If widely adopted, a pre-print repository (which acts an umbrella to collect all scientific work and is not associated** with any specific journal) could have the welcoming effect of having colleagues read and evaluate scientific work well before it has been branded with a journal name. Physicists tend to rely less on journal impact factors for evaluation, in part, because they are used to reading and evaluating science posted on arXiv. Indeed, some major breakthroughs posted on arXiv were never published subsequently in a journal. The life science community needs to return to a culture of evaluating scientific merit from reading manuscripts, rather than basing judgment on where papers were published and hence outsourcing the career evaluation process to journals.
4) A pre-print repository may not solve the “amount of data” required for the next step of journal publication. However, it might lower the bar for shorter manuscripts to be posted and reach the community, even if an ensuing submission to a journal takes longer to develop.
5) A pre-print repository is good value in terms of impact and information transferred per dollar spent. Compared to operating a journal, the cost of running arXiv is low (~$800,000 per year), most of which comes from modest subscription payments from 175 institutions and a matching grant from the Simons Foundation. Unlike a journal, submissions to arXiv are free.
6) Future innovations and experiments in peer-to-peer communication and evaluation could be built around an open pre-print server. Indeed, such communications might provide additional information and thus aid journal-based peer review.
7) A pre-print server for biology represents a feasible action item, since the physicists/mathematicians have proof-of-principle that this system works and can co-exist with journals.
The last point is perhaps the most important. Publishing pre-prints is a feasible step. I have started to do it myself in the past year (partly motivated by deals offered by PeerJ) and it is a practice that I intend to continue.
But the key will be to get more and more life scientists to adopt the pre-print habit. Leadership on this from senior figures – academicians, fellows of the Royal Society, prize winners and the like – will help. Institutional support from funders and universities, by which I meant putting in place incentives for rapid communication of results, could also be important. The rest of us have to face this idea seriously and at the very least be willing to debate the pros and cons – I would welcome that discussion.
Or you could see the sense publishing preprints and just do it.
*Thanks to Ron Vale for permission to reproduce this section of his paper.
**In Vale’s article this phrase is ’not unassociated’ but I suspect that’s a typo.